Human rights, as popularly conceived, have a troubling genealogy.
There is no question today about the global hegemony of human rights as a discourse of human dignity. Nonetheless, such hegemony faces a disturbing reality. A large majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights. They are rather the objects of human rights discourses. The question is, then, whether human rights are efficacious in helping the struggles of the excluded, the exploited, and the discriminated against, or whether, on the contrary, they make those struggles more difficult. In other words, is the hegemony claimed by human rights today the outcome of a historical victory, or rather of a historical defeat?
Human rights were historically meant to prevail only in the metropolitan societies—not in the colonies.
We must begin by acknowledging that law and rights have a double genealogy in western modernity. I understand the dominant versions of western modernity as having been constructed on the basis of an abyssal thinking that divided the world sharply between metropolitan and colonial societies. This division was such that the realities and practices existing on the other side of the line—in the colonies—could not possibly challenge the universality of the theories and practices in force on this side of the line. As such, they were made invisible. As a discourse of emancipation, human rights were historically meant to prevail only on this side of the abyssal line, i.e., in the metropolitan societies. It has been my contention that this abyssal line, which produces radical exclusions, far from being eliminated with the end of historical colonialism, continues to exist and that its exclusions are carried out by other means (neocolonialism, racism, xenophobia, and the permanent state of exception in dealing with alleged terrorists, undocumented migrant workers, and asylum seekers). International law and mainstream human rights doctrines have been used to guarantee such continuity.
But, on the other hand, law and rights have a revolutionary genealogy on this side of the line. Both the American Revolution and the French Revolution were fought in the name of law and rights. Ernst Bloch maintains that the superiority of the concept of law and rights has a lot to do with bourgeois individualism. The bourgeois society then emerging had already conquered economic hegemony and was fighting for political hegemony, soon to be consolidated by the American and French Revolutions. The concept of law and rights fitted perfectly the emergent bourgeois individualism inherent both to liberal theory and to capitalism. It is, therefore, easy to conclude that the hegemony enjoyed by human rights has very deep roots and that its trajectory has been a linear path towards the consecration of human rights as the ruling principle of a just society. This idea of a long-established consensus manifests itself in various ways, each one of them residing in an illusion. Because they are widely shared, such illusions constitute the common sense of conventional human rights.
One of these illusions—the teleological illusion—consists in reading history backwards, beginning with the consensus that exists today concerning human rights and the unconditional good they entail, and reading past history as a linear path inexorably leading towards such a result. Related to the teleological illusion is the illusion of triumphalism, the notion that the victory of human rights is an unconditional human good. It takes for granted that all the other grammars of human dignity that have competed with that of human rights were inherently inferior in ethical and political terms. This Darwinian notion does not take into account a decisive feature of hegemonic western modernity, indeed its true historical genius; namely, the way it has managed to supplement the force of the ideas that serve its purposes with the military force that, supposedly at the service of the ideas, is actually served by them.
This precaution helps us to face the third illusion: decontextualization. It is generally acknowledged that human rights as an emancipatory discourse have their origin in eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution. What is seldom mentioned, however, is that since then and until today human rights have been used in very distinct contexts and with contradictory objectives. The invasion of Egypt, for example, was explained to the Egyptians by Napoleon as follows: “People of Egypt: You will be told by our enemies, that I am come to destroy your religion. Believe them not. Tell them that I am come to restore your rights, punish your usurpers, and raise the true worship of Mahomet.” Today we cannot even be sure if present-day human rights are a legacy of the modern revolutions, or of their ruins, if they have behind them a revolutionary, emancipatory energy, or a counter-revolutionary energy. We need, therefore, to evaluate critically the grounds for the alleged ethical and political superiority of human rights.
The ideals of national liberation—socialism, communism, revolution, nationalism—constituted alternative grammars of human dignity; at certain moments, they were even the dominant ones. Suffice it to say that the twentieth century’s national liberation movements against colonialism, like the socialist and communist movements, did not invoke the human rights grammar to justify their causes and struggles. That the other grammars and discourses of emancipation have been defeated by human rights discourses should only be considered inherently positive if it could be demonstrated that human rights, while a discourse of human emancipation, have a superior merit for reasons other than the fact that they have emerged as the winners. Until then, the triumph of human rights may be considered by some as progress, a historical victory, while by others as retrogression, a historical defeat.
Bearing in mind these illusions is crucial for building a counter-hegemonic conception and practice of human rights. The western-centric understanding of the world, thus ignores or trivializes decisive cultural and political experiences and initiatives in the countries of the global South. This is the case with the movements of resistance that have been emerging against oppression, marginalization, and exclusion, the ideological bases of which often have very little to do with the dominant western cultural and political references prevalent throughout the twentieth century. These movements—including, indigenous movements, particularly in Latin America; the peasant movements in Africa and Asia; and the Islamic insurgency—do not formulate their struggles in terms of human rights; rather, they formulate them at times according to principles that contradict the dominant principles of human rights. These movements are often grounded in multi-secular cultural and historical identities, often including religious militancy. In spite of the huge differences among them, these movements all start out from cultural and political references that are non-western, even if constituted by the resistance to western domination.
Conventional or hegemonic human rights thinking lacks the theoretical and analytical tools necessary to position itself in relation to such movements; even worse, it does not understand the importance of doing so. It applies the same abstract recipe across the board, hoping that thereby the nature of alternative ideologies or symbolic universes will be reduced to local specificities with no impact on the universal canon of human rights. Such movements, increasingly globalized, together with the political theologies sustaining them, constitute a grammar in defense of human dignity that rivals the one underlying human rights, and often contradicts it. A counter-hegemonic conception of human rights alone can adequately face such challenges.
This post was adapted from the forthcoming book, If God Were A Human Rights Activist.